Why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed?

What if it wasn’t for that reason?

Recently, in my personal Bible reading, I came across this famous Bible story in the Old Testament book of Genesis. The quick summary is this: Abraham’s nephew Lot finds himself and his family in the city of Sodom. One day, a couple of (male) angels arrive in Sodom, and Lot insists that they stay overnight in his house. That evening, the men of Sodom demand that Lot surrender these two angels so they can have sex with them; Lot offers his two daughters to the crowd instead.

(Let’s just pause right there. Why do we condemn the men of Sodom for their attempt to rape the angels, but we don’t condemn Lot for offering his two daughters to experience that same abuse?)

The angels then cause the crowd to go blind, Lot and his family escape, the angels disappear, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone (what did the people of Gomorrah do?), Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt, and Lot ends up sleeping with and impregnating his own two daughters. Thus ends the biblical account of Lot. (Read all about it in Genesis 19.)

What is going on here? Why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed?

The popular answer in modern-day Christianity is because the men of Sodom practiced homosexuality. In fact, that’s a fairly historical answer, too; the English word “sodomy” takes it meaning from this biblical story.

But what if it happened for another reason? Can we separate the story of Sodom from the highly-charged, emotional, political, religious issue of homosexuality? Let’s try.

What do we know about Sodom from the Bible? (This a more interesting question than asking about Gomorrah, because scripture always pairs Gomorrah with Sodom, but not vice versa.)

  • Sodom is first mentioned in Genesis 10:19 as a border city in the ancient land of Canaan. (Review the sketchy beginnings of the Canaanites, descendants of Ham the son of Noah, in Genesis 9:18-29.)
  • Sodom then shows up a few times in Genesis 13. In verse 10, it’s mentioned parenthetically as a town that God will eventually destroy. This is important: the Bible is aware of Sodom’s fate from the outset.
  • But Genesis 13:10-13 is all about Abraham’s nephew Lot, who chooses a parcel of land for his family. He settles near Sodom, which is populated with wicked men who were sinning greatly against the Lord – but for undisclosed reasons.
  • Then in Genesis 14, the king of Sodom goes to war with several other kings and against several other kings. It’s all very messy and bloody, but Sodom loses the battle, and Lot and his family are carried off into captivity. Abraham quickly rescues his relatives.
  • The king of Sodom then has a unique meeting with Abraham himself in Genesis 14:17-24. In the middle of this meeting, quite unannounced and unexpectedly, Abraham has a powerful encounter with Melchizedek, priest of God Most High. This story forms the basis for our understanding of the tithe.
  • Things settle down for Sodom until Genesis 18. In this chapter, God promises descendants to Abraham and Sarah, who are old and childless at the moment. After this promise, God mentions to Abraham that he’s going to destroy Sodom because of its wickedness (again unspecified). Abraham bargains with God: if God can find ten righteous people in Sodom, he will not destroy it.
  • Then Genesis 19 happens, and Sodom is destroyed, but Lot and his daughters are saved.

So why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed? I think the answer lies in the goal that the book of Genesis is trying to achieve: Genesis is all about explaining how God blessed Abraham and his descendants and made them into powerful nations. And God’s promise to Abraham is that God will bless all nations through him (Genesis 12:1-3).

The reason Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed is that they got in the way of God’s plan to bless the nations.

Take another look at Genesis 19, specifically verses 9 and 10. The nighttime conflict between the men of Sodom and the two angels ends when the men threaten Lot, not the angels and not his daughters. Lot is rescued by the angels. Lot survives the destruction of Sodom. Lot continues his family line through his two daughters (sketchy as that is). Lot becomes the ancestor of two of Israel’s ancient neighboring nations, Moab and Ammon.

Sodom is destroyed because God has plans for Lot, plans to bless him and to make a nation or two out of him. And let’s not forget the whole sweep of scripture: the entire Bible is about Jesus, whose human ancestry is traced (Luke 3 and Matthew 1) directly through a woman named Ruth, who is a Moabite, the great-grandmother of King David. No Lot means no Moab, which means no Ruth, which means no David, which means no Jesus.

I think the moral question of homosexuality – while still very important – is actually very far removed from what the Bible is trying to accomplish through the story of Sodom.

Just take a look at what the New Testament says about Sodom:

  • Jesus refers back to Sodom and Gomorrah as a way of pointing toward God’s future judgment of all people. And that final judgment has everything to do with how people respond to Jesus himself. (See Matthew 10:11-16, 11:20-24; Luke 10:1-16, 17:20-37.)
  • Romans 9:29 quotes Isaiah 1:9, which refers to Sodom and Gomorrah in a way that gives thanks for God’s provision for his people in the time of his judgment.
  • 2 Peter 2:4-10 mentions Sodom and Gomorrah in a passage that encourages Christians to endure trials in the present world.
  • Revelation 11:8 mentions Sodom in passing as John describes the greatest evil in the world.
  • The only verse in the New Testament that connects Sodom to some kind of immoral sexual practice is Jude, verse 7. But even then the passage is more about God’s final judgment than it is about moral codes of sexuality.

Please hear what I’m trying to say. I’m not advocating for free sexual practice among all people; I’m not saying that I approve of homosexual activity.

What I’m trying to say is that the story of ancient Sodom is more about God’s plan to save people through Jesus than it is about creating laws regarding sexual behaviors.

What if we learned to retell the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a story of how God protected his people, created nations, and carved a path in history for the future arrival of the Messiah?

Let’s discuss something bluntly.  You probably know about this summer’s “celebrity hacking” scandal:  naked selfies of several famous actresses were stolen from their online accounts, and these images spread quickly across the internet.

This is a massive ethical and moral problem on many different levels.  We could point fingers at many people:  the thieves who stole these private photographs, the young women who took these selfies, the many strangers who viewed these pictures for their own pleasure.  For quite a while, I have been bothered by this entire situation.  But today I gained some clarity on the issue.

I subscribe to a news magazine called The Week.  In its current issue, this magazine quotes a Vanity Fair interview with Jennifer Lawrence, the 24-year-old actress most famous for playing the role of Katniss Everdeen in the “Hunger Games” movies.  Jennifer is one of the victims of the aforementioned hacking scandal.

Let’s put aside Jennifer’s claim that the theft of her pictures is a “sex crime.”  Let’s put aside questions of whether or not she “deserved” this unwelcome attention.  I want to focus on one extremely illuminating detail from her interview with Vanity Fair.  Jennifer explains why she sent naked selfies to her boyfriend by saying this:

“I was in a loving relationship.  It was long-distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or look at you.”

Read the last phrase of that quote again.  What kind of sexual culture do we tolerate that brings young women to believe such a statement?

The true evil revealed by the celebrity hacking scandal is that our culture believes men must satisfy their sexual desires in any way possible.  Since they must, they will.  And since they will, they may as well find that satisfaction in “appropriate” ways.  This perspective absolves men of any responsibility for their own behavior, and it cheapens human sexuality, which God intends for higher purposes than satisfaction of impulses.

Either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or look at you?  Why do we assume that he has to look at all?  Is there no other way?  Is there no better way?

It is time for us to stop believing the lie that “boys will be boys.”  It is time for us to reject the ideas that viewing pornography is natural, that the female body is meant to be seen indiscriminately, and that women must do whatever it takes to satisfy their boyfriends’ sexual desires.  It is time for us to call men (and women) to exercise self-control.

I understand where Jennifer Lawrence and her boyfriend are coming from.  I am a 34-year-old man who has been married for nine years.  Tara and I did the long-distance dating thing for two years before our wedding.  We know that self-control is possible.  And self-control has led us into a healthy and safe relationship that will last our entire lives.

Women, keep your clothes on.  Put your cameras down.  If you believe that your boyfriends must choose between pornography and you, then both you and your boyfriends need to mature.

Men, stop viewing pornography.  Stop the online image searches.  Stop “reading” swimsuit magazines.  Stop asking your girlfriend to send naked selfies to you.  Stop supporting the many ways that our culture misuses the female body.  Learn the art of self-control.

I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman.  For what is our lot from God above, our heritage from the Almighty on high?  Is it not ruin for the wicked, disaster for those who do wrong?  Does he not see my ways and count my every step? (Job 31:1-4 NIV)

In the final sermon of this series, Pastor David helps us investigate a scandalous Old Testament story:  an attempted extramarital affair involving Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, found in Genesis 39.  How do we misuse human sexuality – and other relationship aspects – in today’s world?  And how do we make use of self-control to battle temptation?  Listen in to this week’s sermon:

Listen now!

Matthew Henry, an English Presbyterian minister who died 300 years ago, is well-known for writing lengthy commentaries on every chapter of the Old and New Testaments. His thoughts are often very helpful to Bible students; he provides background information and insights on any passage of scripture you might choose. His commentaries are in the public domain and are free to read electronically; I have downloaded them as part of the Bible study software that I use on a regular basis. Occasionally, but not often, I have read Henry’s thoughts while studying a particular passage.

I’m going to have a much harder time doing that now.

Continue reading

Joseph: A Good Man

photo by Fergal of Claddagh

The Bible is an amazing book:  the way it points us to God and shows us how to live is unequaled by any other book in human literature.  I’d like to show you something I discovered recently while studying this book; maybe you’ll appreciate it as much as I did!

We often remember Joseph (the Old Testament character) as the boy who was hated by his brothers, given a multi-colored coat by his father Jacob, sold into Egyptian captivity, and eventually the rescuer of his family during a massive famine.  But the book of Genesis paints a picture over the span of several chapters that shows us Joseph’s character very clearly.

  • Abraham and Isaac both tried to pass their wives off as their sisters (Genesis 12 and 26).
  • Joseph’s sister Dinah was raped by a man named Shechem (Genesis 34).
  • Joseph’s brother Reuben slept with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah (Genesis 35:22).
  • Joseph’s brother Judah had twins with Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38).

The early days of the Bible are full of stories that make us blush, either with shame or anger, about how certain men treated certain women.  Now take a few minutes to read Genesis 39, the story of Joseph’s encounters with Potiphar’s wife in Egypt.  Look at how careful Joseph is to maintain his sexual purity, even though his actions resulted in his imprisonment.  Joseph – unlike Abraham, Isaac, Shechem, Reuben, and Judah – was careful to avoid sexual misconduct (having an affair with Potiphar’s wife).  And what was his stated reason?  He could not fathom “do[ing] such a wicked thing and sin[ning] against God” (Genesis 39:9, NIV).

So may it be among us:  that our everyday choices, in all areas of life, may be in clear contrast with the actions taken by the world around us.  Friends, let us follow the way of the Lord, no matter the cost!

–Pastor David